Cherries, like most fruits, are best eaten right out of hand. There’s no doubt about that. The next best thing to fresh cherries, as I have recently discovered, would be pickled cherries. I used to reserve that runner-up spot for cherry jam and brandy-preserved cherries. That is no longer the case.
In the book, Live to Cook, Michael Symon has included a recipe for refrigerator pickled cherries. Fresh cherries aren’t boiled to death; instead, they simply enjoy a warm, syrupy bath of crimson pickling liquid which has been infused with assorted spices. The cherries are then kept refrigerated, allowing them to stay cool, fresh, firm, and juicy. The result is sweet and tart cherries with the fragrance and flavor of warm, autumnal spices permeating every part of their beings.
I have experimented with different spices and found the five-spice mix to be the best. For this most recent batch, I added a few dried bay leaves (which is not part of the five-spice blend) to the mix and they made that which was already excellent even better. Feel free to use whichever spice blend you like.
According to the recipe, you’re supposed to bring the pickling liquid to a boil, then simmer it for 10 minutes. That was exactly what I did for my first two batches. However, I have found that thicker, more syrupy pickling liquid produces pickled cherries that retain their texture and color better, and are more intense in flavor, not to mention less wrinkly towards the end of their shelf lives. This has led me to reduce the liquid down to approximately 1/3 of its original volume before pouring it over the cherries.
Also, the recipe says the cherries are supposed to be fully submerged. However, I’ve found that even though the amount of the thicker pickling liquid, done my way, is too small to cover all of the cherries, not only does this not jeopardize the quality of the end product, it also enhances it. And if you wonder how you can pickle something without fully submerging it in pickling liquid, be assured that upon standing the salt in the liquid will draw out the natural juices from the cherries and within a few hours you will see more liquid in the jar than you initially put in it and your cherries will be fully submerged eventually.
The last tweak is that I use my homemade cherry vinegar in the pickling liquid. The original recipe calls for red wine vinegar which works beautifully. I just wanted to go all cherry all the way.
I’m sure there are several other uses which I have not explored. If you have suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
2 lbs sweet or sour cherries, stems and pits intact
3 cups (24 fl. oz.) cherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
3 cinnamon sticks
3 bay leaves
3 pieces of star anise
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds